Opponents Call Putin's Overhaul Plan a Step Back

By STEVEN LEE MYERS

New York Times

September 14, 2004

MOSCOW - President Vladimir V. Putin ordered a stunning overhaul of Russia's political system on Monday in what he called an effort to unite the country against terrorism. If enacted, as expected, the proposals would strengthen his already pervasive control over the legislative branch and regional governments.

Mr. Putin, meeting in special session with cabinet ministers and regional government leaders, outlined what would be the most sweeping political overhaul - and his most striking single step to consolidate power - in Russia in more than a decade. Critics immediately said it would violate the Constitution and stifle what political opposition remains.

Under Mr. Putin's proposals, which he said required only legislative approval and not constitutional amendments, the governors or leaders of the country's 89 regions would no longer be elected by popular vote but rather by local legislatures - and only after the president's nomination. Seats in the lower house of the federal Parliament, or Duma, would be elected entirely on national party slates, eliminating district races across the country that now decide half of Parliament's composition. In elections last December, those races accounted for all of the independents and liberals now serving in the Duma.

After the school siege in Beslan, the downing of two airliners and other terrorist attacks that have shaken the country, Mr. Putin argued once again that Russia was ill-prepared to fight terrorism and said that the country needed a more unified political system. His proposals on Monday, however, made it clear that for him, unity meant a consolidation of power in the executive branch.

"Those who inspire, organize and carry out terrorist acts are striving to disintegrate the country," Mr. Putin said in televised remarks that the state channels rebroadcast repeatedly, in their entirety, through the day and evening. "They strive for the break up of the state, for the ruin of Russia. I am sure that the unity of the country is the main prerequisite for victory over terror."

The Bush administration was restrained in its comments about Mr. Putin's proposals.

"This is a domestic matter for the Russian people,'' said a White House official who asked to remain anonymous. "It is important for Russia to continue along the pathway of democracy and economic reform.''

Across the short spectrum of political opposition in today's Russia, reactions ranged from stunned disbelief to helpless anger.

Gennadi A. Zyuganov, the leader of the main opposition party, the Communists, called the proposals "ill conceived." Sergei S. Mitrokhin, a leader of the liberal Yabloko party, said they represented "the elimination of the last links in a system of checks and balances."

Mikhail M. Zadornov, an independent deputy who was elected from a district in southern Moscow last year, said that rather than unifying Russians against terror, the proposals would simply disenfranchise them from politics and the state.

"All these measures," he said in a telephone interview, "mean we are coming back to the U.S.S.R."

The electoral changes are subject to the approval of Parliament, but because the party loyal to Mr. Putin, United Russia, controls more than two-thirds of the 450 seats, that is almost a foregone conclusion. Mr. Mitrokhin said that although Mr. Putin's proposals "contradict the letter and the spirit of the Constitution," challenges to them would be futile.

"Unfortunately," he said, "in Russia there is no independent Parliament and no independent judiciary."

In the wrenching days since the siege at Middle School No. 1 in Beslan, where Chechen and other terrorists held and ultimately killed hundreds of hostages, Mr. Putin has appeared publicly a handful of times and with unusual candor admitted the government's failures and weaknesses in fighting terrorism. Until Monday, however, he had offered only the vaguest proposals to fix them, instead exhorting Russians to mobilize against the threats facing the country.

In the years since Boris N. Yeltsin elevated him to the presidency on Dec. 31, 1999, Mr. Putin has steadily consolidated political power in the executive branch, often by the sheer force of his will. He took away from the regions the power to appoint the upper house of Parliament. He imposed a structure of seven federal districts over the vast and unruly country, each led by his appointees. He also used the Kremlin's vast power over television and government resources, as well as his extensive personal popularity, to reward loyal governors and punish or push aside disloyal ones.

The proposals on Monday, however, went further than any of other steps under Mr. Putin's watch.

Since Russia adopted a new Constitution in 1993, residents of the country's 89 regions, from Chukotka in the east to Kaliningrad in the west, have elected their governors or, in some places, presidents. They have also sent their own regional deputies to Moscow. Mr. Putin's proposals would take those choices out of the voters' hands.

Mr. Putin said the change in parliamentary elections would strengthen the national parties, which he said would ensure "a real dialogue and interaction between power and society in the fight against terror."

In the December elections, only four parties crossed the threshold for winning seats and three of them generally support the Kremlin: United Russia, the Liberal Democrats and Motherland. The Communist Party, marginalized and increasingly disorganized, remains the only pure opposition party. Two other opposition parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, failed to win any seats. A direct proportional election would give the advantage of incumbency to parties in power and eliminate local grass-roots campaigns that have provided the handful of dissenting voices heard on the Duma floor.

Andrei A. Piontovsky, an analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow, said the change in regional elections could have the unintended consequence of alienating voters in the ethnic patchwork of semiautonomous regions and republics, many led by presidents who enjoy at least a degree of independence from the central government.

"It is not only stupid," he said of the proposal to have Mr. Putin appoint regional leaders to be approved by local Parliaments. "It is very sensitive for the national republics like Tatarstan and those in the North Caucasus. It will be a humiliation to the people there."

After Mr. Putin's meeting, a number of regional leaders loyal to the Kremlin appeared on state television and endorsed his proposals, if not that one specifically. They included Tatarstan's president, Mintimer S. Shaimiev; the governor of the city of St. Petersburg, Valentina I. Matviyenko; and the newly elected president of Chechnya, Alu Alkhanov.

Mr. Putin has faced unusually pointed criticism from the public and in newspapers after the standoff with militants at a school in Beslan, which ended in the death of at least 339 people, about half of whom were children. Last Friday, appearing to bow to pressure, he agreed to a public inquiry into the attack on the school, though one controlled by the Federal Council, whose members he appoints. On Saturday, he also dismissed the interior minister and security chief of North Ossetia, where Beslan is, though not its president, Aleksandr S. Dzasokhov, who was among those at Mr. Putin's special session on Monday.

In addition to the changes in the political system, Mr. Putin also demoted his representative in the Southern Federal District, Vladimir A. Yakovlev, who had overseen Chechnya and the rest of the North Caucasus. In his place, Mr. Putin appointed one of his most trusted aides, Dmitri N. Kozak, who since March has been chief of the government. Before that, Mr. Kozak oversaw Mr. Putin's efforts to rewrite the criminal code and to streamline the government.

Mr. Putin also proposed the unification of counterterrorism efforts in a single agency, citing the examples of "a whole number of countries which have been confronted with the terrorist threat." That appeared to be a reference to agencies like the Department of Homeland Security in the United States, which some here have said Russia should emulate, but Mr. Putin did not provide any details.

He also called for banning "extremist organizations using religious, nationalistic and any other phraseology as cover" and tougher penalties for crimes committed by terrorists, even minor ones like obtaining a false passport.

The electoral changes, however, provoked the fiercest criticism.

"It is not a reaction to a terrorist attack," Mr. Zadornov said. "It is an attempt to change the political system to have more control."